More to Autodale Than Meets the Eye
by Hazel Tan
Typically, the dystopian protagonist reflects on established social and political systems and often believes that their society is flawed (International Literary Association, 2006). This protagonist is the main driving force behind the plots of most dystopian films, as they seek to escape from, or revolutionise, their society. As a result, dystopian literature is characterised by the presence of story progression, where readers follow the protagonist through their quest to challenge and possibly overthrow their dystopian society.
One text that differentiates itself from this cluster despite being classified as dystopian literature would be Autodale: The Animated Series (2017 – 2020) (Autodale). Autodale is a 5- part short film series by David James Armsby, which centres around an authoritarian town, Autodale. Contrasting to typical dystopian literature, the focus of the film, is the Robinson family, who buy into the ideals of the Matriarch, which mimics the existence of the “Big Brother” as in 1984 (1949). They are portrayed to be ambivalent, or unaware, about the negative aspects of their society and have no visible desire for change. Rather than seemingly resigned to their fate, they are content with such an oppressive society. Rather than shadowing a pursuit for reform, the narrative appears to be rather static and mundane, with an emphasis on repetition and cycles. It appears to have a simple purpose of providing a different perspective of how life under an authoritarian government could be.
However, upon closer analysis of the film, there exists some underlying revolutionary desires in Autodale. Some characters in the film do not fall into the same category as the Robinsons, which constitute a powerless group in Autodale. Although these characters are minor and are utilised as a means to better paint out the nature of Autodale, this minority constituting of the Exceptionals, are another powerless group against the seemingly almighty Matriarch. Some of the actions taken by these groups hint at the desire for change in Autodale that is hidden and implicit.
Even though the film seems mundane without plot progression initially, there is a disguise of revolution hidden within the narrative. The hidden yearning for change exists to illustrate and emphasise the power struggle between different groups of people that we empathise or relate to. Different groups of individuals in the film represent certain clusters in our society. By analysing these groups in the film, I postulate that the text is an analogy of an implicit power struggle between the powerful and the powerless over their agency in the context of excessive power asymmetry. Due to disproportionate power wielded by the Matriarch, the central governing power of Autodale, it leads to a lack of overt revolutions as any attempts at revolution by the masses, including Pretties, Uglies and Exceptionals, fail. In this text, I will be referring abstractly to a power spectrum where those on the extreme right have supreme power while those on the extreme left have minuscule power.
The Extreme Right: The Matriarch and her Handymen
The governing powers of Autodale, the Matriarch and her Handymen, have significantly more power than the masses, also known as the Pretties, to the extent where she has total social control. The locus of power in Autodale is the Matriarch, an unknown entity of Artificial Intelligence (AI). By establishing technological control, she governs Autodale and is an analogy of the powerful in our typical society. The Handymen are her mode of social control which grants her latitude to take action without considering resistance from below. As illustrated in Model Citizen (2020), these robots equipped with AI have a surveillance function and exert social control over the citizens, performing daily checks on them. They visit every household in Autodale every day to ensure that “everything’s in order”. By affirming that the citizens are following the societal definition of “normal” as declared and moulded by the Matriarch, she is able to extend her power and influence over Autodale through the Handymen. They keep the citizens in check and are able to eliminate the citizens’ option of adopting a different lifestyle, removing those who seek to challenge and differ. They effectively enforce the Matriarch’s power as such oppression allows her to take action without worrying about resistance from the people. Simultaneously, the Handymen actively curb the agency of the people as the people’s decisions are largely influenced by the potential consequences, more specifically being labelled as “Ugly” and being forcefully removed from society. The fear of such consequences prevents them from taking action or seeking change.
Furthermore, the Matriarch nips any potential resistance in the bud by exercising thought control. Other than surveillance, the Handymen are physical manifestations of propaganda. They are the face of the Matriarch to the citizens. The daily PSA is representative of the daily propaganda fed to the people and is narrated by an animated version of the Handyman. In Being Pretty (2017), propaganda was utilised to brainwash the citizens into believing that the systematic removal of those different from the majority, also known as the Uglies, was a justified move for the sake of the citizens. In Children’s Toys (2018), the Handyman toy was advertised to be a positive influence on the children, enabling “[their] child [to] grow up pretty”. The propagating of such ideas is representative of attempts by the Matriarch to compromise the agency of the citizens as they are exercising thought control over the citizens, recruiting them into the hive mind that the Matriarch oversees. Due to the lack of alternative thoughts, it is difficult for the citizens to think differently, and over time, their agency is weakened, reinforcing the dominance of the Matriarch.
The result of the Matriarch’s thought and social control can be seen by her capability to maintain a society that preaches conventionally immoral practices. This alludes to the extent of control the Matriarch has over the citizens. In Autodale, nuclear families are encouraged, and citizens carry out traditional gender roles, with the father leaving home to work and the wife remaining at home to care for the house. As compared to our contemporary society, the 1950s conservative American lifestyle of Autodale citizens is a backward progression from our liberal values on family and gender. In addition, The Matriarch is able to practice eugenics, removing Uglies, such as citizens that are labelled as Gay, Disfigured and Divorced citizens amongst many other unfavoured genes, to breed those which she deems favourable. All of this is carried out without resistance from the masses, illustrating their relative lack of control, and thus agency, over their thoughts as they fail to consider the possibility that such actions are morally incorrect. This in turn stresses the absolute power the Matriarch has over her subjects, placing her at the extreme right of the power spectrum.
The Extreme Left: The Powerless “Pretties” and “Uglies”
The Robinson Family are subjects of the Matriarch. They are a representation of those who have surrendered their agency to the powerful and therefore relegated to the powerless as a result of succumbing to the thought and social control of the Matriarch. In Autodale, Pretties are the masses, forming a large percentage of the population. Uglies are individuals that were initially Pretties. However, because they diverge from social norms, Uglies are deemed to be a social threat and are subsequently murdered.
In Model Citizen (2020), the Robinson Family were Pretties initially. They were depicted to be willingly murdered by the Handyman brutally once they were deemed to be “Ugly”. As the daily PSA preaches, “a true model citizen knows that their duties are finished, and their course has run”. In Autodale, once a couple has successfully raised their next generation, they are labelled as “Uglies” like the gays and divorced. The function of people in Autodale is restricted to raising their offspring. Once they have fulfilled their purpose, they are deemed as dispensable, or even a burden, and are sent to their deaths. In our society, one would expect defiance if one’s life were to be forcefully ended. However, there is a disturbing lack of such resistance. The unquestioning compliance to something that is at odds with human’s survival instincts suggests that they have thoroughly handed their agency over to those in power, the Matriarch and the Handymen. Furthermore, in No Monsters (2017), the Uglies are illustrated to be unable to consider an alternative to the Matriarch’s ideals, even though it was being presented right in front of them. In this instalment, an Exceptional, who resists the Matriarch, is making her escape from the Handymen. Uglies queueing towards their deaths opted not to aid her but point her out to the Handymen upon seeing this. This solidifies the perception that the citizens have lost all their agency and serve as mere proxies of the Matriarch.
The willingness to die exhibited by the Pretties and Uglies could be a rendering of the resignation to their fate, but this does not seem to be the case. The Robinsons still expressed their heartfelt gratitude to the Handymen for allowing them to be ‘model citizens’ by murdering them. This is best testament to the extent of thought control exercised by the Matriarch as the citizens not only succumb to their ridiculous ideals, but also find meaning in dying prematurely. As life is precious, voluntary surrendering of one’s life is often frowned upon. Such relinquishment supplements the notion that the masses are powerless relative to the Matriarch and have fully forgone their agency. This places them on the extreme left of the power spectrum.
Fruitless Attempts to Scale the Power Spectrum
Other than the Pretties and Uglies, another group that exists within the Autodale population is the Exceptionals. While they have relatively more agency, the Exceptionals are also considered powerless in this power spectrum. They are individuals who are capable of resisting the thought control but incapable of opposing the social control of the Matriarch. Representing the powerless who do not concede to the ideals of the powerful, they are similar to a dystopian protagonist – they realise that something is amiss. However, rather than starting a revolution, Exceptionals are unable to incite much change as there is a lack of like-minded individuals who see pass the Matriarch’s “utopia”. This was illustrated in No Monsters where an escaping Exceptional was betrayed by the Uglies, awaiting their deaths. This was in spite of the Exceptional offering a potential alternative of escape to death to the Uglies. Such is caused by the huge discrepancy in power between the Matriarch and the masses. The thorough assimilation of the masses into the hive mind through thought control grants the Matriarch significant power as they are able to influence the reaction of citizens in the face of potential resistance. Attempts to reform single-handedly is unable to overcome that significant difference in power and likely lead to futility. The power difference can be seen when they utilise their agency to escape from the Matriarch, rather than seeking revolution.
Nevertheless, the ultimate loss of autonomy of the Exceptional when she becomes part of the Matriarch arguably serves as a grim reminder that those who defy those power could risk having all their agency lost. It emphasises the power of the Matriarch to thoroughly oppress desires for change and the futility of any attempt in Autodale to revolutionise. Furthermore, Don’t Feed the Freaks (2018) once again illustrates the relative lack of power the Exceptionals have. Those who successfully escaped from Autodale eventually perish, as the world outside is barren and lack any form of civilisation.
Insights from Autodale: Subjective Dystopia
To summarise, the text makes a statement about power struggles in the presence of excessive power asymmetry. Such a context further widens the difference in power between both parties. This immense power discrepancy makes it difficult for revolutions to take off, leading to a static and ‘peaceful’ society. This explains why there is a lack of story progression in Autodale – the power divergence between the Matriarch (and her Handymen) and the masses is so wide that any form of revolution fails to overcome the deviation easily.
However, it is also interesting to note the relativity of dystopia. In considering the claim that Autodale is more dystopic, it seems to be rather reductive to conclude such is the case. Due to brainwashing by the Matriarch, to the Pretties, being totally compliant is a utopia. We only consider Autodale to be a dystopia because of our social conditioning to believe that liberty and freedom is ideal to human agency. Utopia and dystopia are not objective, and it is fascinating that someone’s dystopia can be another’s utopia.
Armsby, D. L. (2017 – 2020). Autodale: The Animated Series. United Kingdom: YouTube. Retrieved March 25, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBYChBOoVXAenGDYvl5-dAw.
International Literary Association (2006). Dystopias: Definition and Characteristics. Retrieved March 24, 2020, from http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson926/DefinitionCharacteristics.pdf.